david funch
United States
Clarkston
Michigan
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After reading a few other strategy articles for San Juan where buildings are analyzed individually I’ve been inspired to write my own article. Mostly because I agree on some points and disagree on others and it’s really too much information to pick and choose what articles I try and start discussions in, and lot of the information would have to be repeated over and over again in different topics to get my point across. So I thought it’d be better to just start my own. NOTE: Even though what I say here is presented as fact it’s simply one man’s opinion gained from playing many games of SJ and consistently winning with high scores.

San Juan, like nearly every other card game ever made, is won by playing the best card in any given situation (not necessarily the best building). What appeals to me, in this game, is that even though you can have your own “optimal playing strategy”, the cards in your hand cycle in and out so much that it’s difficult (if not impossible) to form a long-term strategy. You have no idea what cards you’ll see or how soon you’ll see them so every round you have to reevaluate what is optimal in the here and now, not what could be.

There are two basic strategies I follow to win San Juan: understanding the relationship of special functions between buildings and understanding the cost/victory points (VPs) relationship of buildings. SJ is won by buying points, not by how efficient your playing area is. With this in mind, the easiest way to win is to simply always play the card with the most VPs that you can afford to build.

First, let’s take a look at the cost/VP relationships. Because the one cost buildings yield the same VPs as two cost and 3 cost buildings yield the same VPs as 4 cost, the cheaper cards are inherently better plays when compared to their higher cost counterparts. The special functions of buildings often balance this out but it’s very important to keep his in mind. Why? If you were to rate each building the 1 and 3 cost buildings would automatically get bonus points for simply providing the same VPs at a cheaper cost.

Now let’s take a look at the individual buildings and how their special abilities affect one another. Never forget, VPs are your bottom line. Understanding the relationships between buildings is mainly to decide between which of your highest VP cards to play.

Smithy: Provides a discount on buildings that you’ll rarely build outside of the opening rounds. For this reason, plus the fact that it yields only one VP, it can safely be discarded to pay for other cards. Of course if you get an early Guild Hall this is a must play. But even then, as long as you can afford to build production buildings turn after turn, why waste a build phase to play this? If you’re playing Guild Hall strategy because you drew it early and you have this card, don’t play it until you either have no production building to play, or can’t afford to play a production building you do have. It’s also not a good idea to use the smithy to pay for a production building (when playing GH) unless the game is half over.

Gold mine: The first of many cards discussed that might make others think twice about choosing the role that’s best for them and any card that does that earns a few bonus points. This card also earns points for not only being the only card that effects the prospector role but also allows you to get in on a role that would normally only effect the player that chose that role. This is offset by it’s low VP yield and that it’ll only trigger around 25% of the time. Still, it’s the best of the 1 cost cards for being the most versatile and for not depending on other cards to be useful.

Archive: Good card to play if it’s still the early game and you’ve already built the prefecture or it’s later in the game and you have the prefecture and can’t afford to build anything else in your hand. Otherwise it’s very limited use and low VP yield make it a no-brainer to discard to pay for other cards.

The two cost cards: Before we get into these I should mention something. The two cost cards lose games. They’re tempting to build because of their low cost for seemingly good abilities but they don’t provide the VPs needed to win. For paying just two more you can have two 3 cost buildings and double your VPs. As you’ll see, another down side to the two cost cards is that many of them require the use of other, better, buildings in order to get the full use out of them. Be very wary of playing these cards if you don’t already have their supporting buildings in play.

Poor house: I would only consider playing this if there was absolutely nothing better to build. It’s only good point is that unlike most of the other 2 cost buildings, it doesn’t require other cards to get the full use out if it. This card also becomes even worse if you have a carpenter or quarry in play (which are some of the better cards in the game).

Black market: Good card to play if you have a 2nd indigo or a sugar building in play. Even if you only have your starting indigo as your only cheap production building it could be worth playing if nothing else looks better. It lessens your dependence on the trader phase and any card that lessens which roles you “have” to choose is good. Still, it requires the use of an aqueduct to get the most out of this card. Otherwise you’re exchanging your dependence on the trader for that of the producer role.

Trading post: Great card if you have the aqueduct, otherwise (like the black market) you’re just increasing your dependence on choosing producer in exchange for lessening your dependence on choosing trader. If you have to choose between building a trading post or black market, play TP if you have more than one large production building.

Well: What is it with these two cost cards and their requirement of an aqueduct to get the full use out of em? Even then this card won’t trigger enough to justify it’s low VP unless you also have a Trading post to help empty out your production buildings. If you don’t have either of those two supporting cards your well will rarely trigger. I found that newer players love the well because if it’s seemingly great and simple ability but in reality the special ability is actually pretty tricky to get working consistently.

Market stand: The well’s counter part. Everything that was said about the well applies here too. The only difference is that this effects the trader phase instead of the production phase. While it may be tempting to get the aqueduct, trading post, well, and market stand into play, remember: You’ve just used up 4 building spots, paying 9, to get a total of 5 VPs. This combo, although awesome to get working, won’t win any games. In fact, it’s traps like this, trying to get your cards already in play to work better, that loses games.

Crane: Arguably the trickiest card to use properly and should be avoided unless you’re sure you’re know what you’re doing with it. Usually it takes more than a couple 2 cost buildings in play to lose a game but the crane can accomplish this all by it’s self. Not really worth it unless you’re building over a one or two cost building with a monument or 6 cost. Even then, avoiding playing this unless you’re leading with cards on the table but are falling behind with VPs (but if you follow my advice that isn’t likely to happen). I found the crane is most useful with the prefecture and archive combo. By the end of the game you’ve got way more ‘must play’ cards in your hand than you could possibly hope to build. This is where the crane comes in.

The three cost building: And now we reach my favorite buildings. Out of all the buildings with in-game special abilities the 3 cost ones have the best cost-to-VP ratio in the game. Not only that, they don’t rely on other cards to get their full use out of em. They’re also very affordable at only costing 3. For all of these reasons the 3 cost buildings should form the backbone of your game.

Chapel: I like to think of this as the 4th monument. Simply put, the chapel is probably the best card in the game. This card wins games. I cannot praise this card enough. Where to start? For one, this card functions outside of role selection and is independent of all other cards. Nothing you or your opponents do when selecting roles can affect this card and no buildings are tied to it. Once in play it’ll just keep on generating points regardless of anything else going on. I’ve heard arguments that this card isn’t as good as it first seems because it requires “donations” that could be used for playing other cards. That’s hogwash. Never ever forget that VPs win games and every “donation” made to the chapel provides a 1-1 cost/VP return. So unless that card you’re not donating to the chapel is used to play a monument or 6 cost, you’re wasting it. Think of it this way: if you could pay one more each time you play a building in exchange for having that building yield one extra VP, would you?

There’s also a darker, more sinister way to use the chapel that deserves it’s own paragraph. It’s the only way to remove cards from the game. When deciding which card to donate, simple choose the best card that’d be of use to your opponents but not to you. No use for a Triumphal arch? Go ahead and throw it under there. Funny how the holiest of cards has the most evil of uses.

Tower: Considered by many to be the most useless card in the game but not by me. Sure, not as useful as most of the 1VP cards but just the fact that this provides 2VPs often makes it the better choice. I know I sound like a broken record but VPs win games, not special abilities.

Aqueduct: One of the best cards in the game. Virtually eliminates your need for choosing producer and as we already discussed it makes many 2 cost cards work a lot better. Even when it’s not supporting other cards, though, it’s still great because it’ll create opportunities where you can choose a 2nd trader role in between production cycles to disrupt your opponents.

Carpenter: actually better than the quarry. Not only provides the same VPs for one less but it’s ability is better in many situations. I’ve played a few CCGs in my time and if I learned anything from them it’s that hand management is key. While the discount of the quarry is great, the carpenter allows you to get rid of useless cards for new ones.

Prefecture: One of the few cards that can determine your entire strategy for the game if you draw it in the opening hand. The trick is to not go overboard with it. Try to recognize where the threshold is, where choosing councilor yet again is overkill and you’re just helping your opponents. As already discussed, look for the archive ASAP and try not to use a crane to pay for anything because you might need it to help your end game.

Four cost cards: Not much can be said about these. They’re pretty self-explanatory.

Market hall: A solid card. Has the same cost/VP ratio as the market stand but the ability doesn’t need any support to trigger every time.

Quarry: Already mentioned somewhat from discussing the carpenter. The best solution, of course, is to build both.

Library: Of the 3 five cost buildings in the game the library is the only one with a special ability and it’s a doozy. Not only does this card provide a solid 3 points, it affects every single role that you select. Granted, doubling the privileges on the some of the roles is pretty useless, but it can be devastating for others.

Monuments: Of the three monuments the statue is not as good as the victory column or hero. Whereas the latter two provide two extra VPs over their same cost counterparts, the statue only provides one more. For this reason I would only choose the statue over the tower and tobacco if the game isn’t in it’s final stages.

The monuments can create some of the tougher decisions in the game. Because you know they’re good but their same cost counterparts have some great abilities. What to do? Think about it like this: Let’s say you have a victory column and a market hall and just enough cards to build one of em. The reason you’d want to build the market hall is for better income so you can afford game winning cards. Well instead of doing that you can just play a game winning card right now!

San Juan is not Puerto Rico. Aside from getting a good production building into play as early as possible, there is no time to focus on improving your income flow. From beginning to end the focus needs to be on VPs. It’s a very simple strategy but it works. Remember, nearly all of the buildings have in-game abilities. So even if you’re not improving your playing area in a way you feel is best, your cards in play are still doing something for you. Just play accordingly.

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Matias Raita
Finland
LOHJA
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Great post, David.

You however seem not to pay attention to the fact that San Juan can also be seen as a "race" game, as the game ends when one or more players get to 12 buildings.

Now, you might say, the VPs win, not the amount of buildings. Even though that's true, there's what I call the fastlane strategy.

While building the cheapass 1-cost buildings do not get you many fancy vps, you get to keep many cards. In my mind this is always a huge advantage; it results in a lessened need to get more cards, and you may pick the Builder-role immideately again, hoping the opponent cannot build anything at all, since he used all his cards during the last round.

Using these tactics you may end the game with your opponent having substantially less buildings, and if all goes well you build a 6-building as your last one, winning you the game. As the game shortens, you also reduce the chance that your opponent gets 6-buildings built and exploited.

Obviously, you cannot play with only this tactic all the time, there are a lot of situations where you have consider other things as well. But especially in the first part of the game I think this is something to keep in mind.

For this reason I consider the 1-cost buildings, and especially the smithy good - since the smithy enables you to build production buildings quickly and make your strategy more flexible. This is also the reason why I'm not as keen as you about the chapel. Donating cards results increased need to get more. Also, for the cards put there, you can't get a City Hall or Guild Hall bonus, as you can for building.

Your article mentions only what buildings to build, if you can afford them. What you don't mention is what cards to keep, if any. In lines with the mentioned strategy, I usually try to keep cards that I can afford to build as soon as possible. Obviously, there are some cards that I almost never dump, like Guild Hall and the Library.

This strategy is perhaps most viable for two players games, since then you can almost count on that sooner or later you'll get a suitable 6-building. With more players, the risk of not getting any of them in time is greater.

Mainly I do agree with what you are saying, the 3-cost cards are cost-effective. Special abilities should be considered more in the first part of the game. In the latter part of the game you usually generate so many cards, that building 1-cost buildings is somewhat pointless - but even then, I'm hesitant to play the most expensive buildings, since every time you're out of cards you give the opponent the advantage.
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w k
Netherlands
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Re: VPs win the game, not the abilities of buildings or comb
Good post, good comments.

I might add a lot of things but I'll only do one:

Smithy

As Matias alreasy mentions this is a good play. David, let's put it like this: first round smithy cost/VP 1:1. After that all tobacco's are 3:3!!! and for Matias: If you always keep one indigo in hand, you always have a free build, so you'll never end up with less buildings then your opponent. If you're lucky enough to get the guild hall with it, it's even a (almost) sure win! (at least as far as I've seen at BSW, having played hundreds of times)
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Peter Sanderson
Bermuda
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This is a great strategy article, certainly for 2-player games. It's also an extremely simple strategy: forget about what the buildings do, just do your best to build the most VP-yielding building you can afford on any given turn.

Used with the strategy of always taking a prospector action first when the governor (at least in the first part of the game), this is a game-winner.
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ketigid ketigid
Singapore
Singapore
Singapore
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jpeter wrote:
This is a great strategy article, certainly for 2-player games. It's also an extremely simple strategy: forget about what the buildings do, just do your best to build the most VP-yielding building you can afford on any given turn.

Used with the strategy of always taking a prospector action first when the governor (at least in the first part of the game), this is a game-winner.


I disagree. You need a good engine by the 4th building before focusing on VP. For example, will you build a first turn Victory Column if you can afford it?

Also, Prospector first is weak unless you already have what you need in your hand. With a poor hand or zero cards in hand, Councillor is still the best action.
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